Today in Chronological Bible-Reading Land — the epic conclusion to the story of Israel’s great rebellion against Yahweh’s plan to lead them to the Promised Land!
Previously, on “The Book of Numbers”… Israel is racing toward Canaan, prepared to overrun them and inhabit the land promised to them by God. But when they arrive, they are cautious — they send twelve spies to scout the territory and report back. Once they see the giants who live there, ten of the spies are so afraid that they lose their faith and make the people believe the land is awful and they’re all going to die. Only two men — Joshua son of Nun and Caleb, a foreigner — stand between Israel and total rebellion against God. Will they be able to save their people?
Short answer: No. Unfortunately the people cave in to mass panic and basically say, “Wahhhhhhh, things are scary! Now we’re going to die horrible, violent deaths and our children will be carried off as plunder! It would have been better if we had died (horribly and violently…) in Egypt (after which their children would have grown up as slaves…) instead of coming here! Just kill us now — we may as well die in the wilderness instead!!”
Then God says, “SRSLY????”
And I don’t blame Him at all! You’d think after all those miracles that the nation of Israel was privileged to witness that they might have a teensy bit more staying power in the face of adversity. I mean, let’s review the list of miracles these folks have witnessed since being slaves in Egypt:
- The Ten Plagues. You know — locusts and darkness and boils– oh my! (Oh yeah, and also that all of these plagues ONLY AFFECTED EGYPTIANS. What.) Exodus 7-12
- The Parting of the Red Sea. Red Sea or Reed Sea debate notwithstanding, God arranged for a large body of water to allow Israel through… and then drown an entire battalion of Egyptian charioteers. Y’know, no big deal. Exodus 14
- Bread of heaven. Once they made it to the desert, the Israelites were fed by God literally making it rain food. Exodus 16
- Water from a stone. Then, once the Israelites were a bit thirsty, God made a rock become a water fountain… with enough for all two million Israelites. Exodus 17
- Epic battle-wins. As long as Moses kept his hands raised to heaven, the Israelites would be winning battles. (Too bad Israel didn’t have a football team…) Exodus 17
- God comes for a visit. When God and Moses had the first summit meeting (yuk yuk yuk), God set the whole mountain on fire and announced himself with trumpet blasts. (But even that wasn’t enough to stop the Israelites from worshiping a cow made of their melted earrings instead…) Exodus 19-20 God also frequently signified his presence with pillars of cloud and fire over the tabernacle. Exodus 33, Numbers 9, et al.
- Holy Moses! After speaking with God face-to-face, Moses’ face literally glowed. Exodus 34
- “…I got better!” When Miriam spoke against her brother, God struck her with leprosy… and then healed her. Numbers 12
So, after all this, after ALLLLLLL these miracles that they’ve witnessed with their own eyes… the Israelites are terrified of a few “giants” that are currently inhabiting the land that God has promised to give to them.
Sigh. Good thing God has more patience than I do! But after all this, even He gets a bit upset. He decrees that for their mind-blowingly stupid disobedience (okay, maybe God didn’t use quite those words…) their consequence is to wander in the desert for 40 years — one year for every day of spying — until all the Doubty Mc Doubtersons have died in the wilderness, like they wanted.
Whoops. Be careful what you wish for has gone to a whooooole new level here.
What really gets me, though, is that even after all this the Israelites persist in their childish whining and ineffective attempts to manipulate God. It goes something like this:
God: You’d rather die in the wilderness? Okay. Request granted.
Israel: …On second thought, all that milk and honey sounds real nice. How about we go to the Promised Land now? We’re just gonna stroll on over…
Moses: Don’t go over there, you dummies! God said you’re gonna die in the wilderness, and so you will. If you climb over that hill you’re gonna get whupped by the locals.
Israel: Oh, come on, it’ll be fun — Ow! Ow! Ow!
Wow. Seriously silly stuff. It gives me a lot more empathy for Moses when he gripes about the rough lot of being the leader and divine intercessor for these knuckleheads.
Anyway, so then presumably the Israelites realize that God means business and get ready for some serious sand dune-age. But then, my chronological Bible plan sends me to this beautiful psalm attributed to Moses. No idea if it actually lines up with this story, but it is certainly a thematic match for what Moses and the Israelites must have been feeling as the reality of “40 years of wilderness and then you die” set in.
In amidst the honest lamentations of God’s wrath and the shortness of life come some beautiful statements of faith and supplication, which are all the more powerful when you think of the probable context. (I think this psalm is very appropriate for Lent, too!) So today, I will leave you with these favorite bits from Psalm 90:
Teach us to number our days,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love,
that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.
May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us;
establish the work of our hands for us —
yes, establish the work of our hands.